The residents of one Sandy Springs neighborhood are upset with the city government over the lack of notice they received from Verizon regarding the installation of some mini-cell towers, but because of a new federal policy and a new state law, the city may have no way of stopping it.
According to neighbors in the Derby Hills subdivision, on Jan. 23, Saul Weber returned home to see a backhoe in his yard with subcontractors preparing to install a 34-foot antenna as part of Verizon’s plan to upgrade its cellular network to 5G (fifth-generation) technology (efforts to reach Weber by phone were unsuccessful).
“It feels very un-American to be a property owner and to have your property infringed and encroached upon without any notice,” said Mendy Eskew, who lives down the street from Weber.
The antennas are being installed 500 feet apart, with Verizon planning to place nine in Derby Hills (with a 10th in The Croft neighborhood nearby), though two will use existing utility poles (one each in Derby Hills and The Croft), said Kate Jay, a Verizon spokeswoman. Three more antennas will installed at the entrances to the neighborhood on Peachtree Dunwoody Road, she added.
New policy, law
The antennas, which must be placed 500 feet apart to minimize service gaps, are allowed thanks to a new Federal Communications Commission policy, FCC 18-133, that was enacted in September 2018. It removes “regulatory barriers that would unlawfully inhibit the deployment of infrastructure necessary to support these new services,” the policy document stated.
Senate Bill 66, a proposed new state law regarding the Streamlining Wireless Facilities and Antennas Act, was introduced in the 2019 Georgia legislative session as part of the state’s push to get more broadband Internet access in rural parts of the state.
It would regulate the placement of mini-cell towers in public rights-of-way to help bring 5G technology to the city. The bill was approved by the Legislature in March, took effect Oct. 1, and means utility companies can install the antennas in Georgia without regulations from local municipalities.
A resident who asked to not be named said they spoke to a Verizon representative about the lack of notice.
“They did admit they made a mistake and should not have done any of the work without notification of the owners,” the resident said.
Jay said Verizon is supposed to give at least 72 hours’ notice about the installations.
“In residential areas we utilize door hangers with notification and an (email) inbox for inquiries,” she said. “These are placed on residents’ homes three to five business days prior to construction teams deploying to the area.”
In an emailed statement, Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, who at a March city council meeting warned residents SB 66 and its companion bill (House Bill 184) could be approved, said the city’s hands are tied.
“The telecommunications/wireless companies asked the state Legislature for this legislation that allows them to bypass city and county zoning and permitting requirements on the placement of these devices in residents’ yards and elsewhere,” he said. “The providers were given control over location and scope with little oversight by the city. At that time, we asked our citizens to contact their legislators to oppose this bill as well and many did, to no avail.
“We are doing our best given the limited power the city has under this law to mitigate the impact. We are requiring co-location where possible and encouraging placement to minimize visual impact. However, in passing this bill, the state Legislature took control from the city and gave decision power to the wireless companies. We expect these projects to quickly move across all parts of Sandy Springs and neighboring cities in the coming months.”
Eskew and fellow Derby Hills resident Ann Bates said they are worried about the neighborhood’s property values being decreased by the antennas.
Bates said she hopes the homeowners can work with Verizon to at least place the antennas in the least visible part of their properties. But Jay said the company has little flexibility there.
“We are limited on how much we are able to move a location due to the (radio frequency) needs and how this ties into the other nodes,” she said. “When we decide to place a new pole, we try to place these on dividing property lines, and we will never elect to place a pole directly in front of a residence. When siting a location our field teams are directed to review the location from a 360-degree perspective to see what impacts are presented.”
One resident said they are upset about the lack of testing the federal government did before approving the mini-cell towers.
“There’s no proof of how this affects humans or the environment,” they said. “It hasn’t been tested for more than a year at this point. Chicago was the first city that went live. There’s no way to validate if this is useful or health-conscious. I am a nuclear engineer, and the fact that these have to be put (within) 500 feet of each other, and it’s a consistent micro-blast, it’s adversely health effective and an extreme eyesore. I can’t imagine walking around parks and seeing these cell towers every 500 feet.”
The residents interviewed said they’ve contacted their state legislators, District 6 Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Sandy Springs, and District 80 Rep. Matthew Wilson, D-Brookhaven, who both voted in favor of SB 66, but haven’t gotten a response yet. Jordan said she has received two emails from Derby Hills residents and is looking into the situation. A phone message left with Wilson seeking comment was not returned.
The neighbors also said they plan to speak at the city council’s next meeting Feb. 4.
“I guess what’s most concerning to all of us is how much it caught us all by surprise,” Bates said. “If Saul had not come home while all that was happening, we could have all come home later that day and saw all these antennas already installed.”